Sitting in front of open fire as harmful to lungs as rush-hour traffic fumes

Survey finds people underestimate the risk that smoky fuels pose to their health

Up to 40 per cent of emissions from open fires remain in the home, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sitting in front of an open fire is as dangerous for your lungs as being exposed to rush-hour traffic, health charities have warned.

A survey carried out for the Irish Heart Foundation and the Asthma Society of Ireland suggests that people underestimate the risk coal, turf and wet wood burning poses to their health and the environment.

Just one in 10 respondents consider the burning of smoky fuels to be the leading source of air pollution, even though these are responsible for the majority of some 1,400 deaths related to air pollution annually.

Up to 40 per cent of emissions from open fires remain in the home, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, just 54 per cent of respondents believed burning smoky fuels was a cause of indoor air pollution and only 42 per cent felt this would damage the health of people living in these homes.


Further restrictions

The poll coincides with a Government consultation proposing further restrictions on the use of smoky fuels. A formal consultation on plans to ban the sale of smoky coal and restrict sales of turf and unseasoned wood ended last month.

"Home fuel burning is having a hugely detrimental impact on the nation's health – with children, older people and those living with chronic diseases being the worst affected," said Irish Heart Foundation chief executive Dr Tim Collins.

“It’s crucial that the scale of the damage being done is fully understood in the debate on banning smoky fuels. The fact is that when you sit in front of an open fire, you’re exposed to similar levels of toxic fumes found in traffic blackspots at rush hour.”

Domestic fuel burning is the main source of microscopic pollutants known as PM2.5, responsible for an estimated 92 per cent of air pollution deaths. PM2.5, which is 40 times smaller than a grain of sand, enters the bloodstream after being emitted from smoky fuels. It can trigger asthma, skin and autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as causing infertility, miscarriage, sight loss and dementia, according to various studies.

“Whilst most fatalities occur among older people, there is growing evidence worldwide of a severe impact on children’s health,” added Dr Collins.

Ireland has one of the highest incidence rates of asthma in the world with one in 10 children and one in 13 adults developing the condition, according to Emily Blennerhassett, interim chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland.

“Air pollution has been proven to cause asthma in children, specifically NO2, which is most commonly sourced from traffic emissions and emission from coal burning,” she said.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.